Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Long Before He Said "Come On Down!"

Johnny Olson was (and still is) my favourite game show announcer and I always got a kick out of seeing him on camera. It happened rarely in the ‘60s and, usually, it was a quick, dark shot of him off-stage. When Goodson-Todman revived “The Price is Right” in the ‘70s, he started being placed in little showcase sketches which were the best part of the show.

Little did I know back then that Johnny had appeared on camera in the early days of television. He hosted a number of shows but, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, ended up announcing instead of hosting. And little did I know that Johnny had emceed several daytime shows in the latter days of network radio, some of them with his wife Penny. In fact, his radio career goes back to at least 1926, when he interviewed taciturn President Calvin Coolidge.

I stumbled onto this feature story about Johnny and Penny in the Radio and Television Mirror of November 1949. Johnny had a Saturday morning radio show at the time and was also on TV on the DuMont network (where his replacement on “To Tell the Truth,” Bill Wendell, was on the staff).

The Mirror was a magazine aimed at housewives, who were Johnny and Penny’s main audience. So it’s no surprise that the article talks an awful lot about cooking, keeping house and marriage—and this is from a woman who also had a career on radio at the time—with a bit of soap opera-style adversity thrown in. It sounds old-fashioned and hokey, but they were married 46 years until Olson died so it must have worked for them.

The story consistently spells their name “Olsen” with an “e.” So do some newspaper obituaries. But he spelled it with an “o” and that’s what’s on his grave.

The photos you see here accompanied the story.

Come and Visit Johnny Olsen
By Helen Bolstad

In Penny's voice, the enthusiasm and happiness bubbled like champagne when she telephoned her invitation. “Our new apartment is finished at last. Radio Mirror readers had a hand in it, you know. How about coming over to visit?”
The idea was fine. For all their success, Johnny and Penny Olsen remain the young couple next door. The New York locale doesn't count. Half an hour after you first meet them, you feel as though you were in the middle of a class reunion with your best friends.
As viewers and listeners long ago guessed, Johnny and Penny are home folks. Johnny, born in Windom, Minnesota, still reads the Cottonwood County Citizen each week. Instead of talking about celebrities at Sardi’s, he’ll convulse you with an account of how, when at a small station in Mitchell, South Dakota, and singing with Lawrence Welk’s band, he joined the musicians in turning mechanics, converted two cars into a bus, and started the trek toward big bookings.
Penny, whose roots strike equally deep into Wisconsin soil, can still name the top performer at WLBL, the Stevens Point station where she began singing at the age of six. She met Johnny at a country dance where he was an announcer at Milwaukee’s WTMJ. He wooed her by writing new words for his theme song each day, proposed on a boat during a Lake Michigan storm, and married her in Decorah, Iowa, the place his family first settled when they came to this country.
A visit to the Olsens is always delightful. The only problem was time.
Reminded of it. Penny pondered. “Oh yes, the schedule. The wonderful, thrilling, awful schedule. All we need is some hours.
“Let’s see . . . Rumpus Room goes on every morning, and so does Luncheon Club. Saturday is ABC’s for Johnny Olsen’s Get Together, and then there’s Prince Charming on Mutual, I mustn’t forget What’s My Name with Arlene Francis, and Fun for the Money, televised from Chicago. ...”
It sounded like the start of what television people call a “hassle,” for Johnny and Penny, these days, are probably the busiest couple on the air.
Penny found a solution. “Let’s make it like an old-fashioned progressive dinner where you move to a new location for each course. Just latch on and keep up until we can go home.”
It sounded hectic but fun. In the WABD dressing room, where Penny was firmly lipsticking a televisable mouth and Johnny slicking his smooth hair down just a little slicker, there was only time enough to ask, “How’s Lena, the good luck poodle?”
Forty-five minutes and a half-dozen quiz contestants later, in a taxi, Penny caught her breath to answer, “About Lena—I just clipped off all her hair, and she’s the funniest sight. I was walking her on Riverside Drive the other day when a boy stepped up to ask, ‘Lady, is that really a baby lion?’”
Lena’s position, officially, is that of mascot. Her arrival marked the end of a run of hard luck and sorrow which Radio Mirror readers, too, had a hand in breaking.
“You remember all the awful things which happened to us after our little dog died last winter,” says Penny. “That was the start, and a deluge followed, Johnny’s father passed away, and we were both terribly broken up. Then it was the apartment. That meant an awful lot to us, for it was the first real home we’d had in years. We sent for our antiques and started to settle down at last.”
Her face clouds at the recollection. “It never occurred to us, when we talked about it on the air, that we were inviting disaster. On a Rumpus Room broadcast, we announced it was finished. That same night, on another show, we got word it was on fire. We rushed home and found that we had been robbed, too—all we had left was the clothes on our backs.
“It hit doubly hard because I had to go to the hospital for an immediate operation. Next, Johnny’s best programs cancelled. We felt as though we had lost our last friend.
“We were feeling so low that John Gibbs, Johnny’s friend and agent, decided to take a hand,” Penny continues. “He brought us Lena, assuring us a new dog would change our luck.
“It was the strangest thing, but do you know she did? The very next day, Johnny got a new show. Then the Radio Mirror story ran—but let us show you, rather than tell you, what happened after that.”
When the taxi delivers you on Park Avenue, Lena, the animated good luck piece, makes herself heard before she is seen. Her happy yips start as soon as the elevator lands, and when the door opens, she hurls herself, ecstatic with joy, into Johnny’s arms.
Says Penny, “She’s the jumpingest dog. Sometimes I think she’s crossed with tomcat or jackrabbit.”
Although the Olsens look out on the towers of Manhattan, the interior of the apartment presents a rustic aspect. Johnny and Penny, forever homesick for the country, have created a sky-high version of a Midwest farmhouse.
Antiques furnish the spacious living room, and each one has a story. Stopping in front of the open-front maple dresser, Penny lifts a plate. “This china came from Johnny’s home, and the milk glass was my mother’s.”
“And Penny’s grandfather carved the settee in the hall,” Johnny volunteers.
“We’re sort of sentimental,” Penny confesses, "I guess we both like old- fashioned country things best of all.”
“We’re sentimental about our fans, too,” says Johnny. "Our families’ fire shower surprised us, but the second shower, from Radio Mirror readers, really knocked us for a loop. Come on. Penny, let’s get the things.”
They return, arms heaped high with hand towels, bath towels, dish towels and sheets. “I’ve never had such linen in my life,” Penny says. "I received some of the most gorgeous luncheon sets.”
Deeply serious for a moment, Johnny says, “Tell everyone how much we appreciated the gifts, will you? We’ll never forget what our friends did for us.”
Says Penny, “Much as I love every single present, I can't help feeling people shouldn't have done it. I know some of them had to sacrifice things they needed themselves in order to send these to us.”
"Well," says Johnny reflectively, “there’s joy in giving, as well as receiving. We’ve handed out over a million prizes, but I still get just as much kick out of it as the contestant, providing it's a fun prize—something which doesn’t amount to a great deal, but which the person will enjoy using.
“This may be a strange thing for a quiz master to say, but it turns me sick to have a contestant get within reaching distance of a whopping big award and then miss the question. When I see that shocked, dead look come over their faces, I realize that winning, to them, meant getting rid of the mortgage or paying for an operation. I know they’ll forever reproach themselves for missing the question.”
Penny, well aware of Johnny’s habit of carrying his listeners’ problems home with him, seeks to switch the conversation to a lighter vein. “I won a quiz prize once. In fact, because of it, I actually got on ABC before Johnny did.”
She goes on to tell how, when Johnny came to New York to apply for a job, she waited in the corridor until a man came by and asked if she would like to be on Ladies Be Seated.
Penny says, “I had never heard of a ‘regular’—a person who goes to every audience show—and I certainly didn’t know that their badge at that time was a red hat. Ed East, with a then-new show to run, thought it wise to choose a few persons who had seen a microphone before. He spotted the red hat I had on and invited me in.
“I answered my questions, and I’d won an ironing board before it dawned on me that would be pretty clumsy to tote home to Milwaukee if Johnny didn’t get his job. I also thought of how little cash we had. So I asked East if he would buy it back. He gave me the most disgusted look. He must have figured he had a real nut on his hands and it was worth anything to keep the peace. He gave me three dollars.”
The big clock booms three deep notes. Johnny looks up with a grin. “Coffee time?”v “Coffee time,” Penny agrees. Leading the expedition into the kitchen, she comments, “After ten years of learning Olsen's Norwegian habits, you’d never guess my ancestors were Irish.”
She sets the coffee to perk, then says, “It will take only a minute or two to get dinner started. We’re having Johnny’s favorite dish — Norwegian hamburger soup.”
“It’s really like a stew,” Johnny explains. “My mother, having ten children, used to cook it to make the meat stretch. We’d make a meal of it.”
Penny takes a fresh recipe card from her file box. “Let me tell Radio Mirror readers how to make it. Giving the recipe is one way to say thank you for the shower. Just follow these directions:”
Norwegian Hamburger Soup
Break an egg into a mixing bowl. Beat slightly, and to it add salt, pepper, a dash of sage, a chopped onion, and just a little garlic. Add the hamburger, mix thoroughly, shape into small balls, and roll the balls in flour. Melt fat in a dutch oven, and when it’s sizzling, drop in the hamburger balls to brown. Add some water, and let simmer for about three hours or more.
When the meat is cooked, add the vegetables—carrots, celery, potatoes, peas, green beans, cabbage and tomatoes. Simmer for an additional thirty minutes.
“Then add one more line,” Johnny instructs. “Deeelicious! Penny is my favorite cook.”
“And it’s just lucky I like it,” Penny continues, “for Johnny never wants to go out to eat. I suppose the only way we manage the schedule we do is because when we’re through, we come home, get into old clothes and really let our hair down and relax.
“Johnny has his record collection, and I’ve got my cooking for hobbies. The most fun I’ve had in a long while was when my niece came here on her honeymoon. I’d always wanted to cook a wedding dinner, so we put all the leaves in the table and called our friends and relatives. “I set the table with my best linen, and of course there were flowers. First of all, we started with cream of chicken soup, and after that, we had fried chicken, carrots and peas, potatoes and gravy, and green salad. For relishes, I had home made dill pickles, stuffed celery, and radishes. I baked Parker House rolls and served them with melting butter. For dessert, we had strawberry shortcake, followed by mints and coffee.”
“Just a simple little meal, tossed together after a day over a hot microphone,” says Johnny with a grin.
Penny matches his smile. “Savour the recollection, my lad, for you get store-bought cake with your coffee today. The housekeeping suffers when I fly out to Chicago to watch you televise Fun for the Money.”
“It’s worth it,” Johnny replies. “We’ve worked together so long that I’m lost without Penny. Even if she isn’t on the show, I need her in the audience. We are partners in everything we do. One is no good without the other.”
“How’s about a little partnership in setting the table?” Penny suggests.
“The hamburger balls are almost brown enough, Lena wants to be fed, the coffee’s ready, and everything seems to be happening at once.”
“Sure,” says Johnny, ambling into the yellow-walled dining room. He takes dishes from the china closet, then holds up a cup for inspection. The pattern is a scene which might have been drawn from Penny’s Wisconsin hills.
“See,” says Johnny, “we can’t get away from it, even in dishes. We may live in the biggest city on earth, but Penny and I like to think we’re still country kids.”


  1. Johnny Olson continued to live that simple life, never succumbing to the Hollywood glamor, and never asking for more than scale wages throughout his brilliant career (although he got much, much more). Eventually settling in West Virginia, he continued to fly out to New York (or after 1972, LA) for work.

    1. ...with side trips to Miami from 1964-71 to announce The Jackie Gleason Show.

      There seemed to be a bit of rotation in the 1950s-60s between radio show host/announcer, game show host/announcer. Olson was definitely the most perky/enthusiastic of the first generation announcers, while his Price Is Right predecessor, Don Pardo always had a little bit of gentle snark in his presentations, which went along with Bill Cullen's dry wit and the occasional absurdity of some of the show's original prizes.